A founder of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, Matthew Braunginn works to close the achievement gaps as a coordinator with UW’s PEOPLE program. [Since this came out, Braunginn has become the Student Engagement Specialist for the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District. –Ed.] He’s also a regular columnist for Madison365.
Rank your Top five MCs. I love the Wu-Tang Clan. They’re for the kids, they’re also my favorite group and 36-Chambers is a better album than Illmatic, I stand by that. Listen to them side by side and you’ll know what I mean. But this is about MC’s and I’ll try and respect this rule here cuz I’m sure I’ll break many more as I go on. So let’s see here…my favorites:
- Mos Def. He should be ranked up there with all time greats but he hasn’t put out a lot of material, and he takes a lot of time between projects. At one point, I think I went eight months listening to nothing but Mos Def and Wu-Tang. Speaking of which …
- Tony Starks, also known as Ghostface Killah, has a couple classics that might not rank as high as Liquid Swords (GZA) or Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (Raekown), but has a much better discography than either, and more extensive too. His last few albums are slept on. Plus you can’t mess with his crime stories.
- Black Thought, one of the most slept-on great MCs. Word play, lyrics, flow. No one has enough Black Thought in their lives.
- Kendrick Lamar, who even outside of my favorites I think I put down as a top 5 MC right now. The strength of his few records and where he’s going as an artist are just mind blowing. He embraces the subversiveness of Hip-Hop in a way no other young MC does. He also respects its jazz and funk roots; he’s a transcendent talent. But, he could use a little more woke juice from time to time; he needs to take a Black feminist class.
- 2Pac … who will forever be better than Biggie. The poet wins over a rapper every day; Pac brought the depth of John Coltrane in the mind and body of a young Black male growing up in Reagan’s crack-infused Black America.
…and I’m pulling God’s Son, Nas, off the bench for my 6th man. He’s my Harrison Barnes. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the likes of Erykah Badu, Left Eye, Nicki, and all the underrepresented and underappreciated women artists and MC’s out there in the Hip-Hop world.
Which motivates you more: doubters or supporters? The doubters. I think that’s the competitor in me; I win. I love to prove people wrong, and when people tell me I can’t do something, it pushes me. It’s funny because one of my good friends who saw my potential never let me off the hook and refused to feed my ego. The supporters are great and amazing and I couldn’t do it without them, but as far as things that fan the flames, it’s the doubters.
What does it mean to be Interracial in Madison? This question…this is a massive question that I could write a dissertation on. But it’s unique in so many ways. I think that in one way I was able to see the depths of white supremacy in a way that few non-white, particularly black people, get to see.
I mean, this city “othered” me in so many ways, which, if you see me, can be laughable because I’m white-passing. It’s funny because ever since I wrote the piece “Not Quite White” for Madison365 I’ve had mostly mixed people or black people in mixed race relationships assume two things: One, they assume the background of my father is mixed because I’m light skinned. (There is mixing on my dad’s side of the family, but it shows how ignorant people are of the history of that in America.) And two, they assume I’m saying that something is wrong with being mixed. I mean, c’mon now, they didn’t read the piece, they didn’t see that it’s my lived experiences, mixed with understanding the history of the Black American experience that led me to say I’m a mixed-race, BLACK male. Not just mixed, not mixed with white, like there’s something wrong with being black, like I’m part white, why would I ever want to be Black? Which just shows the depths of white supremacy.
That’s the thing; I was never fully accepted as white, even though I’m white passing, which caused a lot of confusion growing up. I didn’t know how I was – was I black or white? Some ungodly mixed between the two, forever existing between the ether, never knowing when white people would decide I could pass for white or when they would want me to be Black. That is part of the diversity of the Black American experience. This isn’t about the “one drop” rule; it’s about how deep white supremacy goes that someone like me can still feel and experience it. That I can be in a group of white people that is in the middle of an encounter with cops, and the officers somehow are more aggressive towards me than the white people around me. I learned, through being aware enough of my experiences, that I am not white, nor will I ever be; white supremacy, white people will make sure to let me know that I am not white. So I claim my black identity with pride, as I want nothing to do with the legacy of white supremacy and want to help this nation break free of that. But more importantly I know there is nothing wrong with being black, that black is beautiful, that that is part of my history, it’s in my blood; my grandfather’s cousin A. Leon Higginbotham helped write the South African constitution, I mean, c’mon. And even more important I love my dashes of melanin and will glow in my blackness; I love my blackness and yours.
What three leaders in Madison under 50 have impressed you the most? You know, I thought about this one a lot and to me it’s the cats at UW putting in work. I want to give them all a shout out and there’s a lot more than three. There are so many students doing amazing work at UW pushing against the racism that they face every day. And I love it, I love seeing it. There’s a lot of work to do, particularly breaking through the complacency on campus, but that’s a city-wide issue. And even some that have big futures ahead of them. Now the question here is, is this city going to provide the ability for these leaders to flourish here or will they want to leave it. This city, this state, is losing a lot of talent, especially people of color. It’s a tough city to be in for people of color, and I ain’t mad at anyone that wants to go. Find your space where you can breathe and grow, and it’s hard to do that in this city.
What’s the biggest stumbling block in Madison to turning the corner on our racial disparities? Madison, it’s Madison, well more specifically white Madison. They’re so comfortable and complacent in their liberal-racism. What’s funny here, is that I keep hearing from liberal white folks that Madison is an island and it’s not the real world. But I find that Madison is a perfect example of the depths of white supremacy in this nation, of the lies we love to tell ourselves. Madison tells itself a lot of lies. One point I brought up was this bike bridge being built across the Beltline, and how the city has money for this but they don’t have money to put into black neighborhoods. Someone said that this isn’t an “either/or situation.” Well, one is happening, the other isn’t, so until that’s not the case it is an either/or situation. I don’t know if anything can shake the city hard enough that it’ll take the steps needed. I’d be a bad student of history to think that this city will. It’s never done so before so why am I to believe it can now?
What are your top three priorities at this point in your life?
- Learning and growing. This might always be my top priority, as to be effective at anything that I might choose to do, this has to happen at all times. You can never stop doing these two things.
- I’m about to be at a different level of vulnerability than I usually am, but getting to know myself. The last few years of my life have been and I’m 100% sure will continue to be life defining, in some major ways. I’ve changed and grown a tremendous amount, but I’m unsure who this person is currently. This is a top priority, but a patient priority; I’m taking my time with this, I’m excited about it.
- My next steps. I’m ready for something new personally and professionally. Figuring out where I’m going next. I want to make money off my passions, I would like to engage in some deep problem solving, particularly around racism, white supremacy, and some intersecting political issues. I want to engage with people and problem-solve with them. I love problem-solving, I love thinking through challenges, and engaging with people in the process.
What impact has hip hop had on black culture? You know, I love this question. Black culture is Hip-Hop and Hip-Hop is black culture. But Black culture is also funk, R&B, rock, blues … but it’s all jazz. The subversiveness, the cool/swag, the just having fun, the black love, the complexity, all that in Hip-Hop, all that is jazz. Hip-Hop is an evolution of jazz, so its impact is part of the history of jazz. Now what intrigues me is the question, what’s next? Hip-Hop has been the main music for a minute, and we all know American popular music goes where Black music goes (outside of a select few moments). We’re due for a new genre of music, but what’s concerning here is that the music industry and Hip-Hop particularly have been so commercialized, that the right conditions for something new to develop and then burst out, I don’t know are there. Maybe not though and I hope not, because there are some interesting sounds going on in Hip-Hop and on the fringes of Hip-Hop.
You look at Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar, they’re pulling from the past and building from it. They are really in the jazz mold, the idea of building off what came before you. But then you get into cats like this young brother Raury, who has some rock, blues, R&B, and rap mixed together. Best way I can describe him is Beatles mixed with Outkast. But I’m waiting to hear that next sound though, that something as fresh as Hip-Hop in the late 70’s, or NYC (again) during the explosion of the Bee-Bop era of Jazz, hell the 1950’s with rock…but that’s me though, always looking down the road.
Your dad lead the Urban League of Greater Madison for years. Is there pressure to live up to his legacy? You know, I don’t know … I suppose in some ways it has impacted me. I’m stubborn sometimes in that I don’t ask for help a lot, but that’s a pattern everywhere in my life. But really, no, I have my own life, I am my own person, even with similarities, and I have my own unique ambitions (which are pretty massive, no lie there). And again even with similarities, we look at the world and engage with the world differently. I’m me and I will make my own legacy. No, I don’t think that’s a weight of mine, I have very much my own pressures on myself. I have a good sense of independent agency in my life; I’ve never done things because I was “supposed to.”
Why just “black lives matter” and not “all lives matter?” Because we’re better than…oh wait, sorry I forgot this isn’t going to be only printed in the Black Council of the America’s, midwest chapter, newsletter…I’m kidding people, bad joke I know, I’m full of them. But here’s the thing with this, Black Lives Matter doesn’t speak in the negative, meaning it doesn’t speak in saying Black Lives Matter MORE than. If you’re honest about this nation’s past and present, then objectively and even more important humanely, black lives carry (much) less value, or human worth, than white or even other people of color’s lives, with Black women and LGBTQ folk being piled on by everyone. So “Black Lives Matter” is an assertion of our humanity and an assertion that like you, we don’t have to prove that our lives matter. Meaning Martin Luther King was wearing a suit when y’all murdered him; our humanity isn’t rooted in how we dress, or look, or anything else other than being human. Because we are human we claim our rights to be human and exist as such. That’s why this is not a civil rights struggle, but one of human rights; it is our right to live free of pillage, of robbery of life, of heart, of mind, of murder and rape, of oppression…
W.E.B DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, or Marcus Garvey: Who can you relate to the most? You know, I’m thinking you and others would say Garvey, and some that have only meet me once or twice might say Thurgood, but I’m going to have to say Dubois. All were amazing thinkers, but I’m going with him. Although (breaking the rules again, that’s just what I do) my main man is Malcolm-X, especially late Malcolm, that last year or year and a half of his life; I love reading his speeches, writings, and discussions, during that time period. I find how he thinks, how his mind works, especially at that point in his life…relatable.
Love or fear: which has the biggest impact in society? I’m not a fan of seeing the world in dichotomies, although I’m 100% I’m sure I have at times, so I’m a hypocrite. But ay, even then it works because in a world that isn’t black and white, there are going to be some things that are black and white. Anyways, I digress, but it’s kind of a trick question because in a way it’s really both. You know, I hate the whole saying, “Love is the answer” it’s such so cheesy and I hate cheesy, corny is more my gig. (See again, with the bad jokes.)
But the saying is kind of true, when you love yourself, your fellow humans, and this world, meaning you treat all of the above with respect, as human, with care and wellbeing, and thoughtfulness, then you create a different kind of world. And such thoughts have changed the world.
But fear, fear is a powerful force in its own right and has brought a lot of destruction into this world. It’s easy to give into fear, it’s easy to get lost in it and let it control your movements and decisions. There’s a weird ebb and flow to the two, they both have their moments, but existence, this universe, will still be here when we’re gone. It doesn’t care that we are here, so that means that we should.
If you could be any sports figure who would it be and why? Steph Curry. I never thought I’d watch another player that made me feel the same way as I did when I saw Jordan play. As great as Kobe, LBJ [Lebron James] were and are, and even KD[Kevin Durant], they exist on an earth of mortals, they’re still mere men. Jordan transcended that when he played, it’s like through his will he would bend the universe to him. The thing with Steph though is that he does it without being a sociopath, even though he’s still a killer on the court. His style is different, with Steph, there’s an ease to it, a fluidity to it. It’s like he creates gravitational waves that warp the court to his favor. It also helps I called that he would be the greatest shooter of all time when he was drafted (I have my receipts on this, so check your skepticism), but I didn’t think he would be this. He’s becoming his own singular entity.
I also love the way he plays, as far as the fun he has and that shimmy, I love to shimmy on people. When I’m with my team, that’s what we be like, we bring that intensity, that fire, that we’re taking your soul, but we’re gonna smile shimmy doing it. We win and when we do I flash that smirk and shimmy. Then move on to the next battle.